Before I propose what to many will be a new model of understanding Scripture, I will present the two following difficult-to-accept passages from the Qur'an and the Hebrew Bible. I chose them for their similarly regressive sex-gender ethics.
When Appropriate to Beat One's Wife
I am often reluctant to criticize material in the Qur’an for two reasons. First, I do not want to contribute to xenophobia. Muslims in America are a minority, and they are more often than not misrepresented especially by Evangelical Christians. I prefer to work against misconceptions rather than to feed into them even if this means avoiding legitimate criticisms of Islam and its sources. Second, there is a lot of good, a quantitatively overwhelming amount of good, to be lauded in the Qur'an and in Islamic traditions. The presence of such good does not negate the presence of qualitatively negative material, but I fear that focus on negatives will likely fuel xenophobic minds eager to find fault within Islam for the wrong reasons.
The Qur'an is often more progressive than the Pentateuch on sex-gender ethics. Unlike the Pentateuch, the Qur'an grants women the right to private property, the right to individual earning, a status beyond that of male property, etc. This contrasts with the Pentateuch which treats women (wives) as the property of their husbands, does not grant women property rights (with the exception of an absent a male heir, Numbers 35), and does not allow women the right to individual earnings. This being said, what amounts to likely the most regressive passage in the Qur'an, relates to the husband-wife relationship in the passage the follows:
Men are the maintainers of women, with what Allah has made some of them (men) to excel others and with what they spend out of their wealth. So the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion (rebellion, Pickthal & Khalifa), admonish them, and leave them them alone in the beds (banish them to beds apart, Pickthal) and chastise (scourge, Pickthal / beat, Khalifa) the. So, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely Allah is ever Exalted. Great. 4:34 (Maulana Muhammad Ali)
There is a multitude of views on this passage among Qur'anic scholars, and there is considerable debate regarding the permissibility of beating the “disobedient” or disagreeable spouse. Muhammad is reported variously as having stated that the beating Allah referred to was “as with a feather” and “...in such a manner that it should not leave an impression” (TR. 10:11). Progressive Muslim thinkers today have even found creative (itjihad) manners in which to make this into an absolute ban on physical “chastisement” or beating.
This passage should cause the reader outrage on multiple levels, but I am focusing on the permissibility or the prescription for wife beating. To think that the husband is permitted or prescribed the option, even if as a last resort, of beating his spouse is outrageous and barbaric. In the West, we have been powerfully affected by the Victorian era and feminism. We see marriage as a consenting partnership between two adults who practice mutual respect and who allow the other room for differentiation and autonomy. At least in theory, we encourage disagreement between spouses—we allow for differences of style, interest, decisions, etc. This passage flies against the last three hundred years of cultural amelioration for women in the West.
Retail of Daughters in Moses
At the early outset of the Sinai revelation in the book of Exodus, the following passage marks the second pericope of caustic civil-social law, preceded by regulations on indentured servant hood:
And if a man sell his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do. If she please not her master, who hath appointed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed; to sell her unto a foreign people he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he espouse her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another woman, her food, her raiment, and her oils, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out for nothing, without money. Exodus 21:7-11
Some (Wright & Copan) have noted the protections afforded here to the retailed daughter. She is not permitted to be swapped between the buyer and his son. Likewise, the buyer cannot sell her to a foreign people—he can only sell her (“let her be redeemed”) to someone within the nation. Likewise, if the daughter in her concubinage is not granted the rights of food, clothing, and oils (possible reference to sex), she apparently has the right to leave without being sold off (“without money”).
For every possible progress this passage might pose against its historical-cultural context, this passage remains a dinosaur of regressive sex-gender ethics. If a man today put his minor daughter to work, let alone sold her into concubinage, he would be deemed a criminal. Christians who believe that the Bible is an inerrant expression of God's mind have a problem here. Psalm 19:7 declares, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect...” Torah here refers to the Pentateuch, most likely, from which this passage is drawn. How can a perfect Torah (law) contain such regressive allowances?
It should be clear that sexual ethics change. What was once progressive polity is now regressive. When Scripture, though, is deemed inerrant, the reader today will most often ignore offensive passages. Because such passages are incongruous with the reader's values, their import and significance is often glanced over and missed. They are not revisited later as most do not even see the issues. What these passages, and others, testify to, though, is how culture changes. Where arranged marriage and patriarchy were once normative, consent and romantic love are deemed necessary conditions to marriage, and marriage is esteemed a cooperative, mutualistic endeavor. Cultural values change.
New Paradigms for Scriptural Authority and Contingency
Cultural values change. What does this mean relative to Scriptures? What roles can Scriptures play in setting and crafting ethics?
Influenced largely by process theology and thought, new paradigms for understanding the God-world relationship have been developed that have opened the door for reinterpreting how divine revelation works. One such model is Knight's (2004) psychological-referential model of revelatory experience. He maintains,
Any authentic experience of God that occurs through this divinely given “natural” tendency always...takes on a form that is appropriate to a particular cultural and psychological environment. Because of this it can never be absolute. It has a genuine referential component, recognizable in principle through the “puzzle-solving” character of the theological language to which it gives rise. It also, however, inevitably has a culturally conditioned instrumental component that makes the link between experience and referential doctrine a complex one (pp 56-57).
In Knight's model, revelatory experience is conditioned by its context. This is not enormously different thus far; however, Knight goes on to assert that the contextual-cultural conditioning makes revelatory experiences relative. To Knight, such experiences are not absolute. In turn, the later interpreter of revelation needs to understand the conditional and contextual nature of the revelation. Revelation is packaged and limited by the horizons of its context. It does not unilaterally interrupt and shatter the intellectual, ethical, or theological horizons and limits of its recipients. Hence, the reader is given responsibility to think on her own. She is not given license to set her mind on the altar of another person's ethical and theological conclusions—the process is alive.
Knight goes on to assert:
...there is in this understanding no a priori reason for believing that genuine revelatory experience can occur only among members of some particular religious grouping. ...a number of factors suggest rather strongly a pluralistic...understanding of the faiths of the world (p. 57).
I love this last conclusion. If revelation is psychological-referential, then it can come in diverse packages among diverse peoples. Revelation might then not be limited to he Jewish and Christian Scriptures, we can also look the the wonderful thoughts and betterment offered in the Qur'an. Likewise, the ultimate circumambient reality, God if you will, is not limited to working with prophets of old. We, today, are just as capable of trailblazing, of crafting new horizons and demolishing old idols as those we unfortunately and all too often deem as sacrosanct. We can today add the scathing and salient denouncements of prophet Dawkins to the weighty and progressive calls to justice from the Hebrew prophets. We can listen to Muhammad and Moses, disagree with them when wrong, and build upon their shoulders.
Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011
Knight, Christopher C. Theistic Naturalism and the Word Made Flesh. In: In Whom We Live, Move, and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004
Knight, Christopher, C. Wrestling with the Divine: Religion, Science, and Revelation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001
Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004